Chris Williamson speaking out at the commemorative 200 year anniversary to mark the Peterloo Massacre.
The Peterloo Massacre took place at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, Lancashire, England on Monday 16 August 1819 when cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 who had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 there had been periods of famine and chronic unemployment, exacerbated by the introduction of the first of the Corn Laws. In 1819, political radicalism was rising in popularity because of poor economic conditions, coupled with the relative lack of suffrage in Northern England. The Manchester Patriotic Union was agitating for parliamentary reform, and they organised a demonstration in response, to be addressed by well-known radical orator Henry Hunt.
Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest Hunt and several others on the stage with him. The Yeomanry charged into the crowd, knocking down a woman and killing a child, and finally apprehended Hunt. Cheshire Magistrates chairman William Hulton then summoned the 15th Hussars to disperse the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn, and 18 people were killed and 400–700 were injured in the ensuing confusion. The event was first labelled the “Peterloo massacre” on a front-page headline on the Manchester Observer newspaper, the portmanteau juxtaposing the name of the site with the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier, and the attack on unarmed civilians.
Historian Robert Poole has called the Peterloo Massacre one of the defining moments of its age. The London and national papers shared the horror felt in the Manchester region, but Peterloo’s immediate effect was to cause the government to pass the Six Acts, which were aimed at suppressing any meetings for the purpose of radical reform. It also led directly to the foundation of the Manchester Guardian, but had little other effect on the pace of reform. In a survey conducted by The Guardian in 2006, Peterloo came second to the Putney Debates as the event from radical British history that most deserved a proper monument or a memorial.
For some time, Peterloo was commemorated only by a blue plaque criticised as being inadequate, referring only to the “dispersal by the military” of an assembly. In 2007, the City Council replaced the blue plaque with a red plaque with less euphemistic wording, explicitly referring to “a peaceful rally” being “attacked by armed cavalry” and mentioning “15 deaths and over 600 injuries”. In 2019, shortly before the 200th anniversary of the massacre, Manchester City Council “quietly unveiled” a new Peterloo Memorial by the artist Jeremy Deller, featuring eleven concentric circles engraved with the names of the victims.
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